Fly Higher: A lesson for management from United

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This article was originally published in the May issue of COMPRESSORtech2. Get every issue in your inbox/mailbox and access to our digital archives with a free subscription.

The headline aggregators and social media were filled a few weeks ago with news and opinion about the United Express Flight 3411 incident where a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat to make room for “must-ride” employees.

There were so many things wrong with the situation that it’s hard for onlookers not to get their blood pressure up just reading about it: that the passenger was already boarded and seated; that the staff and crew were not authorized to make a compensatory offer at a price point someone would accept; that overbooking is a thing at all; the man’s unwillingness to comply with federal rules; the heavy-handed removal of the customer; the company’s response after the incident; and on it goes.

Though there were a number of parties involved in the situation — United, Republic Airlines, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Dept. of Aviation security officers — United took the brunt of the blame. United CEO Oscar Muñoz, in his best attempt at public relations repair, took responsibility for the incident, saying it would never happen again.

The situation will undoubtedly end up as a case study in a management textbook one day soon. Perhaps there are some things we can take away from it now. There are a couple of parallels that can be drawn between the airline industry and the oil & gas industry. And maybe there are some parallels between United and your company. Both industries have many government regulations. Both have demanding safety practices and systems. Both industries rely heavily on tightly managed processes for manufacturing and operations.

One airline analyst noted that, at United, these conditions have resulted in a corporate culture where employees are strictly bound by the book. They have become unable or unwilling to bend to find a satisfactory solution that benefits both the customer and the company.

Amazon.com founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, in his 2016 letter to shareholders, warned about the process becoming “the thing.”

“This can happen very easily in large organizations,” Bezos said. “The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?”

Processes are useful. They save time, resources and lives. But the best processes and rules undergo continuous review and improvement to make sure they help achieve intended outcomes.

Is there a policy or process in your purview that has lost its focus, no longer functions correctly or could have unintended consequences? Maybe it’s time for a review.

You can bet United will be reviewing its practices very carefully in the coming weeks and months.